In June last year, I embarked on a personal experiment to determine which language I wake up in. With excellent to passable proficiency in six languages this promised to be an interesting experiment. It did indeed turn out to be one.
You can read the full original post about the experiment below but let me just point out which language I had suspected I would wake up in and how that turned out to be the case. I had said, “It is equally possible that I may not wake up in a particular language at all but with just nebulous consciousness.” I do wake up in a haze of nebulous consciousness that is not so articulate as to suggest a particular language.
As a subset of the experiment I also tried to find out which specific thought I wake up with. There is a tie between two themes—one a grand, boundless wonderment about the universe and the other is about money. While my fixation with the universe is ever present and it is always tackled in English, my obsession with penury is always in Gujarati and that too with a specific observation mumbled to myself: “Sali paisa ni bahu magajmari chhe. (Damn, money is such a clusterfuck.)
A close second to both these themes would be fully formed verses in Hindi/Urdu and Gujarati. In fact, more often than not I have woken up with Hindi/Urdu verses. So there. Those are the broad conclusions. Here is the original post.
June 12, 2015
For the next few days I plan to conduct an experiment to determine which language I wake up in. I suspect it could well be English but that is not inevitable. It is equally possible that I may not wake up in a particular language at all but with just nebulous consciousness.
The experiment begins tomorrow morning and I will report the results here. I wonder whether by consciously doing this experiment I am predisposing my mind toward a particular language. Even that I shall let you know.
In the mean time, it may be useful to republish a post I wrote on March 7 last year as a prelude to this experiment because it may explain the results of this minor experiment. So here:
I often wonder whether I have a natural language; natural to the extent that anyone can have one. After all, language is acquired and is not innate.
My first acquired language was Gujarati. That was the language of all existential references but before I could graduate to its mature expression I switched to English for professional/survival reasons. I had never conversed in English till I turned 20 which was also the age when I started writing it as a means of earning.
It is my distinct memory that in those days my thought process was a sort of parallel processing in two languages—Gujarati and English. I never translated one to the other in my mind. They both blossomed on their own. All this while, a mixture of Hindi/Urdu had already become a third track from my early teens because of my natural affinity for poetry. As far as I can tell Hindi/Urdu too were getting fine-tuned in some corner of my brain simultaneously but independently. I am not going to include the other two languages that I understand very well—Marathi and Punjabi.
After living with four (actually six) languages for the better part of the last nearly four decades I could not say with any degree of certainty which is my default language. Purely in terms of the frequency of use, English wins hands down as the likeliest default language. The reasons for that are obvious because it is as much a language of survival as it is of predominant communication. However, if the ease of cursing is used as the yardstick to measure my linguistic proficiency, then I would say it is a close contest between English and Hindi/Gujarati. I would define your natural language as one in which you would curse severely under your breath.
I feel linguistically promiscuous. The brain often indulges in verbal orgies of threesomes or foursomes or even sixsomes between these languages. Marathi and Punjabi remain only reluctant participants in these acts but they are there, hovering around.
These thoughts came to me this morning for no apparent reason. It would be interesting to see which language I might die in. One cannot foreshadow the circumstances of one’s death but I am curious to find out which language I might be thinking in when the end comes in whatever form it does. It is possible that I may have a reflective death where as I am fading away I am actually reflecting on this, that and the other in a particular language as opposed to an unexpected end where I have no control on such details.
I am at a stage where it is no longer possible to say which is really the language of my thoughts, the process of thinking. One wakes up with any of these six languages and goes to sleep with any of them. My monolingual American friends freak out when I discuss this with them. Many of them are unable to process a creature with so many languages rattling about in his brain. I compound it by saying that there are hundreds of millions of people in India and elsewhere in Asia and Europe who speak/understand/write more than three languages without consciously trying.
As one friend put it so eloquently sometime ago while discussing this at a Thanksgiving dinner, “Get the fuck outta here.” Of course, he did not mean for me to really get the fuck outta there but it was his way of expressing bewilderment at the idea that people could be proficient in many languages simultaneously.
Planets by MC (From bottom left to top right—Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, Moon, Jupiter)
I gave up looking for meaning or purpose to the universe in my early teens. My conclusion then that it has no meaning or purpose the way the human mind understands either holds today.
Who knows who we are, why we are here and whether we are a result of an unprotected intercourse among elements and crazy processes that unfolded in the aftermath of the Big Bang? I quite like my idea that we all are an unplanned consequence of a giant tear in the cosmic condom. Even the Big Bang increasingly seems to have been a local event that created our universe while many others came into being. I mean who knows beyond a point?
However, all that does not make me any less captivated by what is accessible to us in our immediate planetary neighborhood. Since the onset of February five days I have thoroughly enjoyed the striking appearance virtually together of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. This morning after dropping my daughter at school I spent a few moments looking at a scythe-shaped moon and traced Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. I have this habit of acknowledging the sky and its objects by waving to a few of them. So I did.
As soon as I returned to my laptop I started wondering a bit about why it’s all there. I ask this against the backdrop of my original supposition that there is no meaning or purpose to the universe. It is just there. That assertion out of the way, the question why is not fully put to rest. For instance, what does Jupiter do all Jovian day? Or for that matter, why is the Sun forever so ferociously full of flames? And what about Saturn strutting about with its groupies in the form of all those rings?
Now we are being told that it is becoming increasingly clear that Earth is actually two planets. Some 4.5 billion years ago a planetary embryo called Theia slammed head-on into the early Earth and fused. Until recently, the scientific consensus was that Theia had merely sideswiped at an angle of 45 degrees. However, a study by University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) scientists says it was in fact a direct, head-on collision between the early Earth and Theia 100 million years after the former was formed.
"Theia was thoroughly mixed into both the Earth and the moon, and evenly dispersed between them," Edward Young, lead author of the new study and a UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry, said in a statement. "This explains why we don't see a different signature of Theia in the moon versus the Earth."
“We don’t see any difference between the Earth’s and the moon’s oxygen isotopes; they’re indistinguishable,” he said.
What this means is that we are not merely Earth but we are Eartheia. The question “Which planet do you live on?” acquires dramatic new substance in the light of this study.
The idea that we are two planets fused into one does not in anyway help my original problem about whether the universe has any purpose or meaning. It occasionally irks me that I am unable to get any handle on this very fundamental question. I doubt if I or any of us, even in the unimaginably infinitesimally minor way, could be furthering some utterly unfathomable grand cosmic purpose behind this one universe that we live in.
This is a futile quest, this search for meaning or purpose because it is whatever we imagine it to be. There is no single, identifiable point at which meaning and purpose converge. I think the best way out is to frequently look at our own slice of sky and feel an immense sense of exhilaration, finding an occasional alignment of the planets in our solar system.
Mayank Chhaya with “Orgasms in the head” (Photo: Mayank Chhaya)
Over the past three and a half decades one has done a few hundred interviews. I have not preserved clippings of most of them. However, some of them do survive. One such to survive and survive well is an interview I did 25 years ago this very month. It was done for the now defunct ‘Debonair’ magazine which was then helmed by friend and fellow journalist Amrita Shah.
Dr. June Reinisch, the well-known sexologist who was the director of the prestigious Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, was visiting Delhi to attend the First World Conference on Orgasm. The conference was organized by the sexologist Dr. Prakash Kothari. The theme of the conference in 1991 was orgasm. So it was just as well that I set up an interview with Dr. Reinisch on the subject. Amrita gave an apt headline to the interview: “Orgasms in the head.”
Purely out of curiosity, I googled Dr. Reinisch and found that she very much keeps up her India connection. Her Facebook page shows she was visiting Chhatisgarh last month.
There is no particular reason to carry some of the excerpts from that interview today other than the fact that this month marks its 25th anniversary. I began by asking Dr. Reinisch if a consensus view had emerged on the question of orgasm at conference.
“The important reason for having this meeting is to get people to think about orgasm as an important aspect of sex and an area for which some serious clinical work is needed….Historically, sex has been thought of as inseparable from reproduction and the pleasurable aspects have been ignored. In fact, pleasurable aspects are often seen negatively. I think this meeting is on the road to thinking of sexuality as positive,” she told me.
One of my questions that struck Dr. Reinisch as significant was this:
MC: Is orgasm a destination that a copulating couple must reach?
JR: That’s great a question. I think it is one of the problems that sex therapists see regularly. The answer is definitely ‘No.’ I think if orgasm is seen as the ultimate destination in sexuality, many problems arise and much pleasure is lost. So you have two negative things. It (copulation) becomes a contest. It becomes a battle or a challenge rather than an enjoyable journey that should be good from the beginning till the end. It puts demands on the man for the woman and the woman for the man. It is very clear that orgasm does not need to be the destination for every sexual journey. It is the journey itself that is important, and not reaching the end.
I remember Dr. Reinisch as someone with the anchored temperament of scientist who balanced well between the sheer clinical nature of her profession and its deeply human dimensions. I also remember having greatly enjoyed the interaction with her as someone who engaged with a journalist with such genuine interest in the questions.
We also discussed her widely acclaimed research on homosexuality because she described it as “a natural variation” I asked her, somewhat inaccurately, if she thought homosexuality was a genetic tendency. “Not genetic but there may be a biological reason,” she said and elaborated, “We have some small indication that there may be some physiological factors and environmental and pre-natal factors, while in the womb, that may affect that tendency.”
Reactions to an Indian proposal to lift the two-decade long ban on the gender determination test and in fact make it mandatory to track pregnancies have been swift and understandably denunciatory.
In my preliminary observations yesterday I had described the proposal by India’s Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi as “innovative and potentially game-changing”. This was even as I had simultaneously raised concerns about “the question of individual civil liberties as well a serious potential problem about government overreach.” I also argued that “but in this particular case the grotesque criminality of female feticide trumps it.” If I sound as if I am all over the place, it is because I am and it concerns a gigantic issue of a very complex nature.
The grotesquely murderous misuse of the medical procedure known as amniocentesis is a subject I have closely followed for 30 years. As pointed out yesterday with barely hidden “I told you so” I first reported on the practice in 1986. This is not a crisis which requires us to reflexively weigh all sides of the story or look for equivalency because it is a politically correct thing to do. Female feticide is a crime against humanity and those who practice it must be punished equal to premeditated murder. I may be willfully blind to any shades here at all even though they do exist. I am not even remotely qualified to feel what a mother-to-be is faced with in a situation like that. For instance, mothers-to-be of female children are often under such unbearable familial and social pressures that they choose to abort female fetus over risking their own lives, doing which would ironically may still end that of the fetus’s.
My Associated Press story from 1986 had Dr. Datta Pai, a well-known practitioner of this test then, put it in such a disturbingly stark light. "We have this bad habit of mixing morality with every issue. One must not forget the brutal reality that no matter what the government says women are treated as secondary citizens. I practice amniocentesis as a lesser evil. It is better to have feticide than matricide,” he had told me. He then accentuated it saying, that given preference for male children in India, a woman "bearing too many female children invites the wrath of her husband and in-laws and may undergo the most cruel mental trauma."
While that ground reality may have improved somewhat, I seriously doubt if it has changed so significantly as to feel reassured. The ban on the test has had a positive impact in some parts of India but there is nothing to suggest that it has risen to a level where India can feel good. One clear indicator of the painful persistence of the problem is manifest in the continuing negative sex ratio of 943 women to every 1000 men. Sex-selective abortion is not the only factor contributing to this but it is certainly one of them. The Indian census had pointed out that between 2001 and 2011 six million girls went “missing.”
Sex-selective abortion is also rampant across Asia where one estimate says some 160 million are missing because of it. In other words, sex-selective abortions have led to those many fewer girls being born.
Coming back to the issue of the proposed lifting of the ban and in fact making it mandatory, it has serious repercussions for pregnant women at individual levels but also for society as a whole. There is something deeply unnerving about a version of registry of pregnant women that would be required to keep track of millions of pregnant women nationwide. Quite apart from the enormous logistical challenges, the proposed move also directly involves fundamental individual civil liberties. If every pregnant woman has to take the sex determination test and then obtain a medical certificate in the event of wanting to terminate pregnancy for reasons other than gender bias, it will create a terrible hardship and even potential personal danger. It will also open one more avenue of corruption.
I recognize that there are no new upsides to either side of the debate whether keeping the ban in place or lifting it and making the test mandatory. Its game-changing potential is only in the context of a series of caveats to ensure that such a program runs without any of the potential misuse that any government program is known to be susceptible to. That is one massive, almost insurmountable caveat right there.
If Gandhi’s intention is to create protection for women pregnant with female babies, I seriously doubt if revealing the gender through the mandatory testing is the best way to do so in a society where large sections of people have no compunctions about female feticide or even infanticide. Female babies being killed at birth is also a problem in some parts of India. In any case, how hard is it to circumvent any such law in India given the extent of corruption in the medical bureaucracy? As I said, there are no new upsides to either side of the debate.
The continuing ban on the test acts as a sword hanging on the heads of the medical-industrial complex. It is true that notwithstanding the ban medical professionals have found ways of breaching it over the years. This is one of those terribly difficult sociocultural issues that cannot be tackled effectively via an enforcement regime. It is possible to legislate and enforce our way out of profound prejudices but only to a very limited extent. What is required is a fundamental sociocultural reform where families across the country become genuinely free from gender discrimination at all levels. I am not sure if we are capable of such widespread, deep-rooted and sustainable reform. That however must not discourage us from constantly striving toward that objective.
I remain deeply conflicted about the lifting of the ban and making the test mandatory even as I remain pessimistic about the reprehensible practice of female feticide and infanticide ending in the foreseeable future. The idea to make the test mandatory may be extraordinarily innovative but that does not necessarily make it wise. This requires much deeper reflection not only as a government but as a society. It is an issue that calls for nationwide debate with a specific timeline. It cannot be an open-ended discourse while female feticide and infanticide go on.
I am troubled by the presumption behind the proposal that government can and, more importantly, should police pregnancies as a way to prevent a practice that is a direct consequence of societal prejudices. On the face of it, civil liberties may be trumped by the sheer barbarism and criminality of female feticide and infanticide. On reflection though, it requires a more thoughtful and nuanced strategy. It calls for an approach that is much deeper than just a Cabinet action or legislative reengineering. It calls for all of the above plus fundamental societal reform. I am conscious that the last bit comes across as neither here nor there but it has to be done with the help and passion of the whole country.
India’s Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi (Photo: Ministry of Women and Child Development)
Amniocentesis is a prenatal test meant to determine certain genetic deformities that has been criminally misused in India to ascertain the gender of the fetus and then abort it in case it is female. It is more popularly known as the sex determination test which has been outlawed in the country for two decades now for that very reason. It is a story close to me since I was perhaps the perhaps the first major global news wire correspondent to report it in 1986. I was then working for the Associated Press (AP).
A clipping from my July 14, 1986 Associated Press story about amniocentesis
The reason why I mention this again today is because of an extraordinary review of the ban being proposed by India’s Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi. I must concede it is a rather innovative and potentially game-changing use of the test. Gandhi has been quoted as saying that the test in fact should be made mandatory for pregnant women in order to track them effectively to fight female feticide.
"A proposal is under discussion in the Cabinet to evolve a system that can easily track attempts at female feticide (by parents) instead of punishing the fraternity involved in the medical processes," Gandhi said at a conference. "Those registering the sex of the fetus will have to produce a medical certificate or cite the reason for termination of pregnancy,” she said.
"This will ensure institutional deliveries and virtually abolish the practice of home deliveries in certain areas of the country. Home deliveries pose a threat to a newborn as there might be an attempt on its life," she said.
This is quite a remarkable move which has the potential to directly affect the growing problem of India’s terribly skewed sex ratio which is 943 women to every 1000 men. In some Indian states it drops to the 800s and even much lower. While there are many factors responsible for this imbalance, female feticide is known to play a significant part.
For me as a journalist, it was quite an engagement with a doctor in Bombay while doing the 1986 story. It would be difficult to read the story because of the size of the image but there is a quote in the story by Dr. Datta Pai who used to run Pearl Center that conducted thousands of amniocentesis procedures to determine the sex of the fetus. "We have this bad habit of mixing morality with every issue. One must not forget the brutal reality that no matter what the government says women are treated as secondary citizens. I practice amniocentesis as a lesser evil. It is better to have feticide than matricide."
Dr. Pai's larger point was that given preference for male children in India, women "bearing too many female children invites the wrath of her husband and in-laws and may undergo the most cruel mental trauma."
I thought the bit about feticide over matricide was quite stunning.
With the new proposal by Minister Gandhi, it may become possible to maintain a registry of pregnant women the gender of whose unborn babies is clearly known and tracked for female feticide. There is, of course, the question of individual civil liberties as well a serious potential problem about government overreach here but in this particular case the grotesque criminality of female feticide trumps it. I am very uncomfortable with the requirement of producing a medical certificate or cite a reason to terminate pregnancy. It does seem intrusive but given the scale of the misuse of amniocentesis across social strata there is an urgent need for something rather drastic. Whether drastic should be this remains highly debatable.
The government has not yet approved the proposal to lift the ban and make sex determination test mandatory but as Gandhi says it is before the Cabinet. If the proposal is approved it would constitute a complete reversal of the strategy to deal with a practice that is criminal in a legal sense and utterly reprehensible in all other senses.
Writing is an addiction and like with all addictions a point comes when one does it for the sake of doing rather than for any particular edification. I was just speaking with dear friend and fellow journalist, not to mention a great writer in Marathi, Shireesh Kanekar. We both agreed that only a writer would understand why a writer writes. It gives them a sense of purpose. He has just published his 41st book which he simply calls 41.
I write as a reflex. There is no telling what may set it off. More often than not it is the unique joy of producing something telling, even memorable. Speaking of that, I have a minor reputation among friends as someone who excels at epigrams or one-liners; ideas or thoughts that do not necessarily evolve into something larger but are adequate in themselves.
Dozens of such ideas are born and die in my mind every day. Some I write down, many I don’t. The other day I had this potential opening for a novel or a story. “He killed me as if he was curing me of life.” This may or may not lead to anything bigger but I am just happy saying it for the sake of saying it. For instance, I told another friend and fellow journalist Vasanthi Hariprakash sometime ago about a possible epitaph for me even though there is no possibility of my being entombed. “Here lies an idea whose time never came.”
This morning another idea came in Hindi in the form of a minor verse. It goes:
मैं ही अतीत
मैं ही वर्तमान
मैं ही भविष्य
जब मैं ही सब हूँ
तो आप सब क्या हैं?
I am the past
I am the present
I am the future
If I am all of that
What are you?
These lines serve no purpose other than setting me on to writing or other content that would earn me some money. To that limited extent, they do help.
It is a measure of how much addiction writing is that I have even written about writer’s block. The following was on October 3, 2011.
October 3, 2011
I frequently get asked if I am ever up against writer’s block. I am not, but if I am I choose not to call it so. And if I do choose to call it so, I make it a point not to say it out aloud. And if I do say it out aloud, I do so in my basement when I am alone where the admission dies because of the poor quality air. Either that or whenever I run into writer’s block I write about it.
For as long as I remember I have never run low on things to say. That must not be confused with saying things which make sense or are relevant or readable or all of the above. My aspirations as someone who writes both to earn and churn are so low that I call them Plus 1, which is to say that if just one person other than me reads what I write, it should be regarded as worthwhile effort.
In the strictest sense of the expression it is absolutely true that I do not ever suffer from writer’s block. For one, I do not yet consider myself to be a writer. We will see once I have written ten books. However, in so much as it means being unable to write anything at all, such as news analyses or news stories or even this blog, I have never faced that. The trick is to write something else and not struggle with a piece of writing that is getting blocked.
For instance, yesterday was one of those rare days when I wrote absolutely nothing other than the customary morning post. I could sense that there may be a block developing. So I preempted it by choosing not write anything at all. Writer’s block is when you want to write but cannot. It is not writer’s block when you choose not to write at all. There have been days when I have rustled up a few thousand words despite early apprehension that I may not be able to write any.
One good thing about writing subpar material, which is what I mostly do, is that it liberates you from the demands of excellence. This sentence is a good example of what I am saying. On closer scrutiny you would discover that it does not really mean anything. The other day a younger colleague asked me for tips on writing, which in and of itself was astounding because why would anyone ask me for tips on writing? It took me no effort at all to tell her, “The best way to write is to write.” While you do, remember that more often than not writing begets writing. If you possess any ability to express yourself in words, the best way to crank it up is by just writing something, anything.
For instance, this morning I intended to write about the world’s most powerful millimeter/ submillimeter telescope in the Chajnantor plateau in the Atacama desert, Chile, and the images it is producing of galaxies tens of millions of light years away. I could have easily written a few paragraphs about the subject but it struck me that I may not be able to put across something the readers of this blog may be able to chew on. Instead, I wrote about what it means to have writer’s block.
Hillary Rodham Clinton in Ahmedabad in 1995 as the First Lady trying her hand at block printing (Photo: Courtesy/ U.S. Consulate General)
The best that a newspaper endorsement of a presidential candidate can do is to concentrate a few more minds about a particular politician. I am not sure if such endorsements eventually sway enough number of voters to influence the outcome. What does matter in terms of visibility for a candidate so endorsed is which newspaper or media outlet or a journalist has offered it.
Endorsement by The New York Times,, for instance, would naturally carry considerably more weight than others. Conversely, if I were to endorse a candidate, it would have absolutely no impact. Speaking of endorsement, the Times has endorsed Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. The paper has described her as “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.”
I do not endorse candidates for two reasons—One, no one cares and, more important, two, I am by temperament a detached outsider to the human discourse. Notwithstanding, I had written the following piece about Hillary Clinton on June 18, 2014, well before she had announced her intention to run for president. She was still dropping tantalizing hints about what she might do. I republish that piece if only to underscore that it is who or what is offering the endorsement that might matter and not when.
June 18, 2014
Let me first say this unreservedly and unequivocally that Hillary Rodham Clinton should be the next president of America.
I am claiming to be the first journalist to have asked her way before anyone had even suggested that she has what it takes to be the president of the United States. That was in 1995, when she as the first lady visited Ela Bhatt’s Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad. I was there to report and purely on an impulse I asked her—rather threw a question at her—about the prospect of her becoming president one day. I am not sure if she heard it in the throng of secret service detail and others and, if she heard it, she felt it appropriate to answer my rather unnecessary question in the context. In any event, for a journalist fast approaching his oblivion I must claim some measure of vindication even if I have no documentary evidence to support my claim. I did ask the question 19 years ago and that’s that.
With that out of the way, the main theme of the post. I am for Clinton as the next president. That said, I have been watching her latest round of media appearances in the guise of promoting her book ‘Hard Choices’ with a measure chariness. She is at a stage of her life and career where she cannot be much else other than a precisely calibrated political vernier caliper(s). Everything she says and does comes across as well-rehearsed and meticulously measured. I am not holding her precision against her but one looks for a semblance of handcraftedness (Not a word. Coined here for the purpose), quite like the block printing she is engaging in the photograph above. One immediate example of her calibrated life is a comment I read as having been made by her the other day. She said "the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking." I am sure she means it and means it without the context of the approaching presidential season still in a distant horizon. However, there is something calculated about this pronouncement.
Her media tour to promote the book has inevitably become an event with a larger political context. Perhaps given who she is, she can’t help it. Her shadow is political and she cannot shake it off. My endorsement of Clinton as president is as much about her credentials as it is about a desire to see American politics yielding to a woman. While her gender is almost entirely incidental to the debate, in so much as it brings some features that set her apart because she is a woman are something one looks forward to. Let us not androgynize the person of the president because many men in America may not be entirely certain about a woman in that role. It is not as if every male president has scaled heights of statesmanship progressively greater than his predecessor.
I have frequently maintained that America needs a woman president for the next 240 years at least because that is how long it will have had male presidents by the time Barack Obama’s term ends at 11.59 a.m. on January 20, 2017. Let that begin with Hillary Clinton even if she is so calibrated. I am not necessarily her supporter but there is no better person right now to correct this massive historic wrong than her.
Gandhi by Mayank Chhaya
Gandhi has become somewhat like Einstein’s e = mc2 . People sense that it denotes something significant but they can’t quite really grasp it. It is best to begin getting a sense of Gandhi first by remembering what he said about himself. “My life is my message,” is what he said. If that sounds inordinately grand and conceited, that is because it is at a superficial level. However, its purpose was not necessarily to sound grand. It was in keeping with his openness about his life and letting the generations that came after him know that his life, with all its strengths and follies, should be seen as his message. He did not seek the label Mahatma but at the same he did not particularly mind it either.
As India and those who think of Gandhi observe the 68th anniversary of his assassination today in 1948, he represents a paradox captured by being simultaneously forgotten and heralded. Google search of his name reveals 114,000,000 results. In contrast, Albert Einstein notches up 80,700,000 results. (Those of you who have a difficulty with numbers Einstein brings up over 34 million less). Over the years, I have written a a great deal about Gandhi. I have even made a whole documentary about one of his favorite songs (Gandhi’s Song), which is about to be released worldwide. Gandhi is never far on one’s mental horizon. To mark the anniversary of his assassination let me republish extracts from two posts I wrote a while ago.
October 2, 2009
I have this long-held fantasy that hailing from the same region as Mohandas K. Gandhi somehow gives me a unique insight into the man's mind. Of course, it does not but then it is a fantasy and thankfully fantasies do not require any rational reinforcement.
On Gandhi's 140th anniversary today let me join President Barack Obama in saying a thing or two. Incidentally, the mention of Obama is entirely gratuitous. I do so because it lends me some perceived gravitas and gives me a reasonable segue into what the US president has said. Here is what Obama has said on Gandhi's anniversary: "The America of today has its roots in the India of Mahatma Gandhi and the non-violent social action movement for Indian independence which he led. As we remember the Mahatma on his birthday, we must renew our commitment to live his ideals and to celebrate the dignity of all human beings."
The idea that the America of today has roots in the India of Gandhi is an extraordinary tribute from a president who in many ways embodies all that went right in America in the decades following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement. While most American presidents in the last seven to eight decades have been generous in their praise of Gandhi, I wonder whether anyone has made as definitive a statement about the man as Obama has.
Beyond his political genius, moral loftiness, messianic intransigence and brutal honesty to me Gandhi's singular defining quality was his self-assurance laced with supreme arrogance and conceit. I mean that as an unqualified praise. Without that profound self-belief he would have been a run-of-the-mill member of the Indian National Congress and not its presiding deity. Gandhi was a socio-political entrepreneur whose preferred currency was moral absolutism.
For someone born less than a decade and half after Gandhi's assassination (1961) and that too in the city where he conceived and perfected many of his political and philosophical ideas, I do not remember him to be an overarching influence. By the time I was born Gandhi was so deeply internalized in the atmosphere of my surroundings that one could no longer separate the man from his pervasive influence. What I grew up on was not Gandhi the icon but Gandhi the idea. My childhood memory of Gandhi was a man who negotiated without ever really forgetting the moral high ground of non-violence that he stood on.
I never thought of Gandhi as a Mahatma or an avatar but a negotiator who had the force of rectitude behind him. Of all his invention of political symbolism, the defiant making of salt as part of the historic Dandi March of 1930 remains in my mind as the quintessence of Gandhi the negotiator with the force of rectitude behind him. Distil all lofty political discourse into a single commonly identifiable symbol quite like the way salt is produced through a process of evaporation.
Coming back to the Gandhi Ashram, visitors routinely speak of the tranquility of the place. While a lot of the tranquil vibe of the place is genuine, I think a significant part of it is also one’s mind projecting it. Because we have primed ourselves to expect tranquility, we somehow find it even in Ahmedabad’s debilitating heat in the summer and suffocating humidity during the monsoon season.
The only time it feels really tranquil is when dawn is just breaking and birds are fluttering out of their nests on the Neem trees. Or when dusk is falling and the same birds are returning to their nests on the same Neem trees. That phase lasts no longer than 45 minutes combined. Take my word for it because I have done it many times and actually timed it. Twenty three minutes at dawn and 22 at dusk.
Its minimalist air, stripped of any grandiosity, makes one feel as if the inmates of the Ashram between 1917 and 1930 led a life so full of bliss and serenity that 80 years after the fact it still pervades its environs. Those who know history would tell you that under Gandhi the Ashram was anything but tranquil, simply because it was the nerve center of India’s independence movement.
The sheer amount of political brainstorming, strategizing, moralizing, sermonizing and executing by the who’s who of India’s freedom movement that happened here must have generated a great deal of intellectual heat. It would have been a lot of things but tranquil and serene it certainly was not.
Violence was intrinsic to ancient Indian kingdoms; in particular, parricide. I have been long fascinated by what happened to Bimbisara, the first great king of the ancient Indian empire of Magadha, who was murdered around 493 B.C. by his son Ajatashatru.
As the great historian Romila Thapar mentions in her ‘A History of India 1’, between 461 B.C., when Ajatashatru died, and 413 B.C. five kings of the great Magadha empire were said to have killed in successive parricides. That would make an average of one king killed by his son every nine years or so.
Despite my promises to embark on a fictionalized account of the lives of Bimbisara and his son Ajatashatru, I have been unable to get started other than some scraps I have written so far. One of the scraps was written exactly two years ago. That beckons me to return to Magadha. So as to goad me into that exercise I republish it here.
The details of the cruelty depicted here have been taken from various sources. In any case, this is a piece of fiction.
Date: 493 BCE
Place: Rajagriha, the capital of the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha
Location: Inside a dungeon like prison cell, kept heated for the discomfort of its single illustrious inmate, Bimbisara, the first important king of Magadha, now a starving captive of his own son Ajatashatru.
Khema, Bimbisara’s wife and Ajatashatru’s mother, enters the dungeon looking particularly anxious. Her body is glistening with the golden hue of honey. It is not sweat. It is honey.
Khema’s efforts to smuggle in food for her diminished husband have been discovered by Ajatashatru and his guards. The only way she could carry some sustenance for him without being discovered was by smearing her own body with honey.
Bimbisara is emaciated and haggard. His face is pallid and smile wan. Not bothering with the pleasantries, Bimbisara starts feverishly licking Khema’s body—the arms, the face, the legs, the midriff. Khema stands there as he devours every drop of honey for he has been starved by his son for weeks now as part of a viciously ritualistic parricide. This is his only and last meal before his life turns even more cruel.
The body now having been infused with some natural sugar, Bimbisara seems to have regained a semblance of his fabled luster. His name Bimbisara, after all, means “of a golden color.” He also strikes what he thinks is a stately pose.
Khema wipes Bimbisara’s face and says:
Khema: I feel utterly drained although you are the one starving. I think I have run out of options to bring in food.
Bimbisara: As the Buddha said suffering is part of the human condition. I am suffering because I have attachment. I am attached to life. I am attached to you. I am attached to Ajatashatru.
Khema wells up at the mention of their son
Khema: I often think of what the royal astrologer had said about Ajatashatru’s birth. He had called it portentous for you. He had said he would rise as his father’s nemesis. I do think of that frequently.
Bimbisara: The Buddha also said ‘Yatha bhutam’. That’s the way it is. I do not spend a lot of time thinking about my plight. What appears to be a crisis from outside has so many exits within. I walk and meditate and that keeps me alive.
Khema: Seeing you alive enrages Ajatashatru. Everyday you are alive is like death in pieces for him. I don’t know what we did, what you did, to deserve such cruelty. You gave up the kingdom for him. You gave up everything for him….
Bimbisara: I have you, Khema. I have you going to great lengths to keep me alive. I have you smuggle in food for me. I have you dripping with honey to keep me alive. Asking for anything more and anyone more noble is greedy.
Khema goes close to Bimbisara and whispers:
Khema: Ajatashatru has summoned barbers. I am told they will be sent to here soon.
Bimbisara’s face lights up. He thinks his son has had a change of heart. The summoning of barbers means only one thing. He is being groomed for the life of a monk, something he had been seeking to do all along. He could not be more wrong.
The barbers have been instructed to slice open the soles of his feet, administer salt and vinegar in the wounds and then burn the wounds with coal.
As Khema leaves the dungeon with a sense of foreboding that this may well be the last time she would see him alive, Bimbisara begins his walking-meditation with a distinct hint of a smile at what is to come, unaware that what is to come is unspeakably heinous. Or may be he is fully aware.